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MVFC Week One Primer

We have reached week one, so I suppose it is time for me to get back on the horse! I can’t believe football is back, and for FCS fans it is back to (almost) normal for the first time in two years. In many ways, it feels like I have been waiting for this for two years. I know we just got to play, like, four months ago. But it just felt different. This is a relatively normal season and I am chomping at the bit. Who knew when I watched my Panthers fall to JMU in the quarterfinals in 2019 it would be two years before I got to see my favorite team and my favorite league play regular nonconference games again.

I say the first week is coming, but really MVFC football is already underway. Indiana State took on Eastern Illinois in week zero and did what the Valley tends to do in nonconference FCS games. They beat the Panthers 26-21. As you all know, this game was a looooooong time coming for Indiana State who opted out of the spring 2021 season. And the Trees delivered despite being outgained 378-245 in total offense and 253-87 in the air. Disciplined play won the day for ISU, as they forced three EIU turnovers and committed none of their own which was likely the difference in the game. That and the legs of senior Peterson Kerlegrand who ran for 73 yards on 19 carries. NIU transfer Anthony Thompson was just OK for ISU as he threw 13 completions on 23 attempts for 87 yards. But he didn’t make any crucial mistakes and that got it done for ISU who brings their record (and the league’s record) to a tidy 1-0.

So, Indiana State has a game under their belts but the rest of the MVFC will be taking the field for the first time this week. There are some really interesting contests on the docket for the Valley in week one including some big-time Power 5 matchups, some winnable FBS games and some intriguing FCS games. Also, Illinois State plays Butler. The MVFC will play representatives from eight different conferences between the ten games. The only conference that will play multiple MVFC teams this week is the Big 12, which will play three different MVFC teams. Here is what to look for.

-Western Illinois @ Ball State – 6pm – Thursday: The team picked to finish second-to-last in the MVFC (Indiana State) opened up the season with a win for the league in week zero. The team picked to finish last (Western Illinois) will open up week one for the league on Thursday when they head east to face Ball State of the MAC in their season opener. Western Illinois has had a rough go of it having gone 2-16 over the last two seasons while the school itself teeters on the brink of financial insolvency and closure. The team has not made it easy on themselves with a nonconference schedule that includes one of the preseason favorites in the MAC in Ball State, as well as the 9th and 11th ranked teams in the preseason STATS FCS top 25 (@ Montana and vs. Eastern Washington). That schedule was likely necessitated by their financial troubles, but it puts WIU in a tough spot when it comes to finding some wins. Last year, the Leathernecks had only a punter on any preseason all-MVFC team. This year they feature senior wideout Dennis Houston on the first team, and WR/return specialist Tony Tate on the second team. That probably won’t be enough against the Cardinals who are picked to win the MAC this season. The Cardinals were 7-1 with a win over Mountain West champs San Jose State last year. They return 20 starters from that team and 10 of 12 All-MAC honorees from a year ago.

My Prediction: Unfortunately, there isn’t enough runway to be a homer here. Ball State wins big. ESPN gives Western a 2.9% chance to win and I……don’t see how they came up with that number. I’ve got Ball State 37-10.

-Incarnate Word @ Youngstown State – 6pm – Thursday: Kicking off at the same time as the Leathernecks and Cardinals will be Youngstown State and Incarnate Word. This promises to be a more exciting game than the one being played in Muncie, and one that the MVFC is much more likely to win. The Penguins aren’t particularly well thought of by the coaches and media, as they were picked to finish ninth in the Valley (just ahead of Indiana State and Western Illinois), but they showed signs of improvement under first year (now second year) head coach Doug Phillips in the spring. Youngstown finished just 1-6, but lost by one possession to playoff teams SIU and SDSU and got a blowout, 28-10, win over South Dakota. YSU is led by its first team All-MVFC senior linebacker Grant Dixon, while three Penguins were named second team All-MVFC. UIW is known to score a lot of points (and give up a lot of points), which is kind of a theme in the Southland Conference. Last year UIW played six games. In one game, they gave up 45 points and won. In two others they scored 45 and 47 and lost. The Cardinals will get their points. Can Youngstown’s more Big Ten pro style offense stick with them? UIW was picked third in the new look Southland whose current lineup looks like the Cubs lineup post-trade deadline. They were decimated by realignment and now have only six teams in their league. UIW does boast six first team all-leaguers, including a running back and wide receiver but again…..six teams.

My Prediction: Oofta. This is a tough one. Can Youngstown state slow down UIW? In close calls I tend to lean toward the homer picks. So I will pick Youngtown State, 27-24. They will force a couple turnovers and get the W. But UIW is capable of running away with this if the Youngstown defense can’t slow them down.

-Southern Illinois @ Southeast Missouri State – 6:30pm – Thursday: The first of the MVFC’s heavy hitters will take the field on Thursday when Southern Illinois will hits the road to face Southeast Missouri State. The game is a rivalry game and a rematch of one of the few FCS nonconference games from last fall and was a classic. The Redhawks held a halftime lead, but SIU claimed the lead in the fourth quarter. After SEMO tied the game with less than five minutes to go, SIU drove down the field and won it on a 27-yard field goal as time expired. Of course, SIU went on to a resurgent season that saw them snag their first playoff berth since 2009 and win a playoff game over Big Sky champs Weber State on the road (before losing in the quarterfinals to SDSU). They now enter the fall season with big Nic energy, being picked fourth in the preseason MVFC poll and finding themselves ranked 7th nationally in the preseason STATS FCS poll. Nic Baker won the starting job at QB over fan favorite Stone Labanowitz (the QB for the Salukis in their playoff win over Weber State) who promptly took his ball and went home after hearing the news. That makes the health of Nic Baker paramount to SIU’s success, as the QB depth chart is very inexperienced behind him. It was Labanowitz, not Baker, that was on the preseason All-MVFC second team. He was one of a league leading total of 13 preseason all-league honorees for SIU including six first teamers. Southeast Missouri struggled to a 4-4 record last year after being named to the preseason top 25. However, they are only two years removed from a 9-4 season and a playoff berth (a season that ended with a first round home loss to Illinois State). They will still be among the favorites in the Ohio Valley, picked tied for second with Austin Peay, just four votes behind first place Murray. That triumvirate appears to be seen as head and shoulders above the rest of an OVC field that only has seven teams total this season due to some turnover with conference realignment. This game is a rivalry game where the two sides play for a wheel, and it is the 89th time these sides have met. In rivalry games, just about anything is possible and these are two good FCS teams. It will be a tough test right out of the gate on the road for Nic Baker who will be under pressure to prove coach Nick Hill did not make the wrong choice in choosing him over Labanowitz as the starter. I think we’ll find out a great deal about how “for real” SIU is as a top ten team in this first one.

My Prediction: If SIU is a top ten team as the rankings say, the Salukis should win this one. SEMO is tough, and playing at home, and it’s a rivalry game. This is another very interesting week one matchup. I will go with the Salukis to win 20-17.

-South Dakota @ Kansas – 7pm – Friday: This is a situation where an FCS team is playing a P5 team and the P5 team needs to be on high alert. Not necessarily because South Dakota is an unstoppable juggleknob either. The Coyotes went just 1-3 in an extremely abbreviated season last year. The newly renovated DakotaDome was used only one time as the Yotes had game after game get postponed and cancelled. It is hard to judge South Dakota based off that extremely weird spring season, but the voters in the MVFC preseason poll did anyway. They picked the Coyotes to finish 8th in the league ahead of only Youngstown State, Indiana State and Western Illinois. USD returns most of their team (a common thread among FCS teams this year) including true freshman starting QB Carson Camp who knocked off then-7th-rated Illinois State in his first game as a college QB. South Dakota has a bit of a history against FBS opponents as they have tallied two FBS wins in less than 15 years at the FCS level. The Coyotes have wins over Minnesota in 2010 and Bowling Green in 2017. It is hard to say how good or bad USD will be this year as there are a lot of question marks, which tends to happen when a team only plays four games the season before. ESPN gives the USD a 22.5% chance to win this game, but I would say that has more to do with how much of a hot mess Kansas is than how good South Dakota is. The Les Miles era in Kansas left the program in shambles……not that KU has a particularly strong football history to….shamblify? Their new hire, Lance Leipold, has done absolutely nothing but win in his coaching career with a career record of 146-39 (buoyed by a 109-6 record in eight years at D3 Wisconsin-Whitewater). But year one will be rough for him and the Jayhawks. Fun fact: This game will be a match-up of two national championship winning head coaches. Leipold won six at D3 Wisconsin-Whitewater, while USD’s Bob Nielson won two at D2 Minnesota-Duluth.

My Prediction: Here’s the deal. A lot of times when these FCS teams pull upsets over P5 teams, a large part of the reason why is because the P5 underestimated their FCS opponents. However, I expect Kansas to estimate South Dakota this week. Looking at their schedule, it might be their only shot at a win this year. So I am going with Kansas by a score of 27-24. Not because the Coyotes will sneak up on KU and keep it close but because I am simply picking a slightly more talented team to win at home.

-South Dakota State @ Colorado State – 8pm – Friday: Of all the MVFC games in week 0 or week 1, this one might be the most intriguing. It will also be the most watchable, as a national TV audience will have access to it on FS1. South Dakota State is coming off an MVFC Championship and national runner-up spring season, and is ranked #3 in the country by the STATS FCS preseason poll right now. Similarly, Colorado State won a Mountain West Conference participation award last year. Colorado State is not a stellar FBS program, as they haven’t won more than four games in a season since 2017. That is a bit of a head scratcher because the Rams have world class facilities and should be able to recruit at a very high level. I was genuinely surprised at their lack of recent success. For SDSU, the big question mark will be at quarterback. As most anyone reading this knows, the Jackrabbits will be without their stud freshman QB Mark Gronowski who was injured in last year’s national championship game. Instead, Chris Oladokun will be starter (winning the job over the experienced Keaton Heide who nearly guided the team to victory off the bench in the title game). Oladokun started his career at USF before transferring to Samford where he excelled as a dual threat QB. Now at SDSU as a grad student, he will fill in for this season before Gronowski (theoretically) returns fully healthy next year. Oladokun is a huge wildcard. If he is stellar, SDSU could be the best team in the nation this year (they were picked to win the MVFC after all). If he is average, the Jacks will still be very good, as their game is built on the run first. Isaiah Davis and Pierre Strong are about as strong a one-two punch in the backfield as you can get. Also the Jackrabbit defense is stellar. If he is bad, well, SDSU will just be average. But this team will be in the postseason no matter what. As to whether they can win this one, ESPN gives them a better than one in three chance. I think they may be underselling it.

My Prediction: This is one of those situations where an FCS team is playing an FCS team and if the FCS team doesn’t win you could almost call it a disappointment. This is one of our subdivision’s best chances to steal a W, and I think SDSU will carry their momentum from the spring into this one and take home a win by a score of 27-17.

-North Dakota @ Idaho State – 2pm – Saturday: The Valley gets all of its most intriguing matchups out of the way early in the weekend, leaving mostly clunkers for the Saturday slate. This Big Sky-MVFC matchup might be the most competitive of the bunch, though that says more about the other matchups than it does this one. The Fighting Hawks were not highly touted last year but ended up having a very solid season. They finished with a top ten ranking, an MVFC co-championship, a playoff spot, and a playoff win that propelled them into the quarterfinals before finally losing at JMU. This has resulted in their being plenty touted this season, as they were picked to finish 3rd in the Valley and are ranked #8 nationally in the STATS poll. They should have one of the more balanced and dangerous teams in the FCS across the board, but they are also suffering from a mild case of haterrhea. The talk around some FCS circles questions whether UND is for real. They’ll have to prove themselves again in the eyes of many, but if they have another solid season the evidence will be irrefutable. Idaho State, meanwhile, has been a bit of an FCS doormat for quite some time. After a 2-4 season last year (and a 3-9 season the year before), Idaho State was picked to finish 9th in the thirteen team Big Sky Conference. A win over the top-ten Fighting Hawks to begin the season would be massive for the program. And ISU has shown signs of progress the last few years. But itt doesn’t seem likely to happen.

My Prediction: If North Dakota is as good as their ranking says they are, they should win this relatively easily. Idaho State is playing at home, and isn’t a compete pushover, so I think they keep it close for a half but UND pulls away in the second half for a 30-17 win. If it is closer than that, the doubters will be out in full force. But an easy win would set them up for a very interesting game at Utah State next week.

-Albany at North Dakota State – 2:30pm: Saturday: For the first time since ‘Nam, the NDSU Bison are not the preseason favorites to win the MVFC. They were picked (gasp) second, and their preseason STATS FCS poll ranking is “just” 4th. (Cue the Michael Jordan “And I took that personally” meme). The Bison had their worst season in a decade and *only* qualified for the NCAA Quarterfinals. Quite frankly, they should be embarrassed in Fargo. Of course I am kidding. The accomplishments that the Bison have accrued in the last ten-or-so years are mind boggling. It is probably the reason why SDSU only got 24 first place votes to NDSU’s 18 despite the fact the Jackrabbits nearly won the national title last year. Even if SDSU is technically the favorite, it still feels like NDSU is the favorite. Like SDSU, NDSU’s fate will likely come down to QB play. The fans in Fargo have been the beneficiary of elite, NFL caliber play for most of their run, and they felt the pain of having just average-to-good play from the QB position last year. Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland was not the answer (so he transferred down to South Carolina and will be the starter for them this year… really). Instead, they turn to another former P5 guy in Virginia Tech transfer Quincy Patterson. Cam Miller, who started both NDSU playoff games last year as a freshman waits in the wings. If Patterson is elite, there is no reason to think NDSU can’t reclaim their perch atop the FCS world. Even if he is just good……well there is no reason to think NDSU can’t reclaim their perch atop the FCS world. They’ll be able to run the ball and play good defense either way. That said, if the UND-ISU game isn’t the closest MVFC game on Saturday, it might be this one. Albany is a legitimate FCS program out of a legitimate big time FCS conference in the CAA. The Great Danes are not ranked in the STATS preseason poll but did receive votes and are picked to finish 8th in their league. They were just 1-3 in the spring but are just two years removed from a 9-5 playoff team. They have a preseason all-league first-teamer in running back Karl Mofor too.

My Prediction: Is Albany going to go into Fargo and take down the Bison? No. Could they give them a little trouble? I think so….and that could serve NDSU well. At the end of the day, though, I think NDSU wins easily by a score of 34-10.

-Northern Iowa @ Iowa State – 3:30pm – Saturday: Historically, Iowa State has hated so much about the things UNI choses to be. The teams have met nine times in the last 15 seasons dating back to 2006. In those nine meetings UNI has won three times (2007, 2013 and 2016), lost by one TD or less three times (2006, 2011, 2019), and lost by multiple possessions three times (2010, 2015, 2017). That is a 66% clip over a 15-year period where an FCS team has either beaten a P5 team or taken them down to the wire. I don’t understand why Iowa State continues to play UNI at this point. However, this is not your older cousin’s UNI-Iowa State matchup. The Panthers face the toughest challenge of any MVFC team this week as Iowa State come into the season as defending Fiesta Bowl Champions and ranked in the top ten in the country. Combine that with the fact that UNI is down by their standards (picked to finish 5th in the MVFC for just the third time in Mark Farley’s tenure) and you have a recipe for a very one-sided contest in Ames. UNI has a defense that is good enough to make Iowa State’s offense work a little bit. But the Panthers may not score a point. Like many of their MVFC brethren UNI has big questions at the QB position. Among UNI’s close calls against Iowa State was their most recent contest in 2019 in which the Panthers lost to the Cyclones in triple overtime, 29-26. UNI had a chance to win that game thanks to QB Will McElvain’s shining performance as a freshman in his collegiate debut. In the two years since, McElvain hasn’t been able to live up to his performance in that opener. The QB room in Cedar Falls got stronger this year with the addition Michigan State transfer Theo Day (among others). Farley says he hasn’t decided on his starter yet (he did say it is between McElvain and Day), but all signs point to the incumbent returning. If UNI can get something out of him and the offense…..they could actually be pretty good this year. The defense will always be good enough to keep them in it. But as is the case with several MVFC teams this year, the QB play will probably dictate their success. As for Iowa State….well…..they’re the 7th ranked team in the country for a reason. I have always felt going into an Iowa State-UNI game that the Panthers have a chance to win (and quite often they do win). But I do not feel that way about this one.

My Prediction: Iowa State is a top ten team and the will take care of business. UNI’s D will slow them down at times, but the Panthers won’t be able to get anything going offensively. I have Iowa State winning 30-3. UNI’s season really starts next week at Sacramento State.

-Missouri State @ Oklahoma State – 6pm – Saturday: Someone gave the MVFC coaches and media a heaping helping of haterade and they seem to have put it in a cooler and dumped it on the collective heads of Missouri State. After winning an MVFC co-championship and qualifying for their first playoff berth since 1990, the preseason poll has Bobby Petrino’s team finishing sixth in the MVFC this season. They did get some respect in the STATS poll with a #24 ranking, but doesn’t the reigning conference champion deserve more love? Honestly…….maybe not. A closer look at their 5-2 spring season reveals that they still have a bit to prove. During the regular season, while they did get a nice 3-point win over SIU, they avoided SDSU and UND and got blown out by NDSU. They won very close games against the likes of lowly Western Illinois and South Dakota. And of course, they got blown out in the playoffs by North Dakota 44-10. So, while it was a great, resurgent season in Springfield it is fair to have doubts about whether the Bears can repeat the feat. That isn’t to say it can’t be done. Missouri State should be better than they were last season. Coach Petrino has infused the roster with talent the likes of which they haven’t seen in Springfield in a while. Several FBS transfers dot the roster. Can that roster coalesce and become a playoff contender? Maybe, but not soon enough to give Oklahoma State trouble. This one is going to be blowout city. The Cowboys are a top 25 team and MSU is not ready for that. This one might be the biggest blowout loss of the weekend for the MVFC.

My Prediction: ESPN give the Bears a 1-in-200 chance to win this one and I can’t really argue with that. I think Oklahoma State is not going to be kind, and win by a score of 52-7. We’ll find out more about MSU next week when they play Central Arkansas.

-Butler @ Illinois State – 6:30pm – Saturday: Go ahead and file this one under “I wish they were playing basketball”. After all the action Thursday, Friday and Saturday the Valley has saved perhaps the most boring matchup for last. Illinois State, for their part, currently finds itself wandering in the abyss. In 2019 the Redbirds had a solid 8-4 season in which they felt they deserved a top eight playoff seed. They didn’t get it but they did make the playoffs and won two road games (including one against 8th seeded Central Arkansas) with their backup QB before falling to top seeded (and ultimate national champion) NDSU in the quarterfinals. They came into the spring of 2021 ranked #7 in the country but started the season 0-3. They then won one game against Western Illinois and decided that was enough football for one spring, ending the season about halfway through their schedule. It was a curious move for a team that seemed pretty peeved that Missouri State postponed their week one game due to wintery field conditions. But I digress. The question for the Redbirds is whether they are closer to the team that clawed its way into the quarterfinals in 2019, or the team that fell apart like a house of cards during the spring season. The prognosticators seem to lean towards the latter, and Illinois State has gotten very little praise or notice in the offseason. It’ll be up to them to prove the people wrong. That said, they wont be able to prove anything in week one. Butler comes from the non-scholarship Pioneer League. The PFL is probably the weakest league in the FCS, but it has pulled off a few upsets over fully funded teams in the last few years. It has even won a couple playoff games. Unfortunately for Butler, almost all of that damage has been done by San Diego. Butler is not San Diego. In fact, the Bulldogs were picked last in the Pioneer League preseason poll. That puts them behind St. Thomas who was playing D3 football last year. Butler might not only be the worst team any MVFC team plays this week……they may be the worst team any MVFC team plays this year. Illinois State just needs to take care of business on Saturday and they can start proving themselves next week at Western Michigan.

My Prediction: Illinois State wins…..I dunno 45-10?

And that does it. We’ll see if I look like a genius or lose all credibility (if I have any left). My guess is somewhere in between. See you next week!

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